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Director Alex Gibney Says 'Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine' Is a 'Corrective' (Q&A)

"There’s been a lot of hagiography of Steve. I don’t think that does justice to the man."

Magnolia Pictures
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

If you want to see a movie that Apple executives like, don’t go see “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” the documentary that opens today.

“An inaccurate and mean-spirited view of my friend,” Apple’s Senior Vice President Eddy Cue tweeted back in March when the movie screened at South By Southwest. “It’s not a reflection of the Steve I knew.”

Director Alex Gibney might take that as an endorsement. In his mind, his movie is a necessary counterbalance to overly positive portrayals of Apple’s iconic leader.

Gibney certainly takes an unusual approach: Rather than a straightforward life story, the movie focuses on a handful of moments in Jobs’s life that many biographies don’t linger on, like Apple’s stock options backdating scandal.

That allows Gibney to play rare — and fascinating — footage of Jobs parrying with Securities and Exchange Commission lawyers during a 2008 deposition. But be warned! It also makes for a downbeat movie.

I sat in on a group Q&A session with Gibney at SXSW in March. Here’s an excerpt of that conversation:

Your film doesn’t have any on-camera interviews with current Apple employees, or anyone who didn’t end up distanced from Jobs in some significant way. Was that your choice, or your reality?

That’s the reality. When we first reached out to Apple … they sent us emails saying, “We’re sorry, but we do not have the resources to deal with your requests.” So I felt like we should all pitch in to help Apple develop those resources.

Do you like Steve Jobs?

I’m conflicted about him. I recognize a lot of myself in him, in the fact that I work very hard, probably to the detriment of the time I spend with my family. And the people in my company also work very very hard. So in many ways I kind of applaud that. And also there was a kind of questing for perfection.

But also at the same time, I’m appalled, really, by his cruelty, and his inability to get outside himself, and to see himself and his company in a broader perspective.

In that SEC deposition, where he’s talking about how, when he wasn’t given a bigger stock option package by the board, he felt hurt — that just struck me like, you’re a very very powerful guy, and the board didn’t do what you wanted to do by themselves, and you’re hurt? I don’t know. That seemed like a person who couldn’t get outside himself.

Magnolia Pictures

Most biographies of Jobs mention the backdating story, and incidents like his fight with Gizmodo, after the site got its hands on his iPhone prototype. But they don’t spend much time on those stories. You did. Is that because you thought they were telling, or because you could talk to people who would talk about it, or both?

Well, I had the deposition. And I was interested in the Gizmodo incident. But not because they were telling incidents about Apple the business. This film really looks very carefully at his values. That’s something Steve would bring up over and over again: Values. In the context of his values, I think the stories are symbolic. It’s hard to understand why the head of such an enormous company would be so upset about Gizmodo writing a story about his lost iPhone.

What do you think his fans will think of the movie?

There’s a religion around Apple, and some won’t like it at all. I think some hopefully will see it in a broader perspective. One of the reasons for me making this film was to offer something of a corrective. There’s been a lot of hagiography of Steve. I don’t think that does justice to the man. So hopefully they’ll see it in that context.

At the beginning of the movie you say that the public conflated Apple and Steve Jobs. What happens to Apple as Steve Jobs’s persona starts to fade from public perception?

I don’t know. He did a very good job of making the products intimate by making himself be the public face of the products.

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